DENVER | The debate over George W. Bush’s legacy has erupted into a brawl at the University of Denver over whether to present the former president with an award for his humanitarian work.
The Josef Korbel School of International Studies’ plan to honor Mr. Bush at a Sept. 9 fundraising dinner touched off a petition drive last month by a recent graduate, who is urging the university to “choose an alternative recipient.”
The school originally planned to honor Mr. Bush with its Improving the Human Condition Award, according to an invitation posted on the university’s website. After a spate of publicity surrounding the backlash, the name of the award was removed from the website.
“Former President George W. Bush left behind a legacy of human rights abuses, including the torture of detainees in extra-territorial jails, preemptive war, domestic surveillance programs, and other egregious actions that deleteriously impact the human condition,” said the petition, posted by Christine Hart, who received a master’s degree from the school last year.
The kerfuffle coincides with Mr. Bush’s careful re-entrance into public life after four years of assiduously avoiding the spotlight. He made a rare public appearance with the April 26 dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library at Southern Methodist University.
DU spokeswoman Kim DeVigil said Wednesday that Mr. Bush would receive the Global Service Award “for his service to our nation, his leadership as 43rd president of the United States, as well as his remarkable work in Africa, both during his presidency and in his post-presidency.”
Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli, who sits on the school’s Social Science Foundation Board, said having Mr. Bush agree to appear at the dinner was a “huge coup” for the university.
“It’s a huge honor for a school to have a presidential visit in itself, and obviously it has huge fundraising potential for the school,” said Mr. Ciruli. “In terms of his record, there are obviously still some controversial parts related to Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, but there are other parts that are universally praised.”
Indeed, Mr. Bush has long won plaudits for his work on HIV/AIDS and malaria in Africa. During his presidency, he led the effort to contribute more than $5 billion by establishing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, followed by a drive to combat malaria.
Even former President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, commended the Republican ex-president at the library dedication for increasing aid to the African continent by more than 640 percent during his eight years in office.
“Mr. President, let me say that I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on Earth,” Mr. Carter said.
A Gallup poll released June 10 shows Mr. Bush’s approval rating on the uptick, rising from the mid-30s in March 2009 to 49 percent roughly the same as President Obama’s, whose numbers have dropped since his November re-election.
“He’s been a model ex-president,” Mr. Ciruli said. “From my point of view, the award is proper and incredibly prestigious for the school. And there will be some controversy, but the part they’re focused on is his work in Africa, and for that he’s received enormous praise.”
Republicans are accustomed to receiving lukewarm receptions on college campuses. DU’s Korbel school riled some students in 2010 by presenting the Outstanding Alumni Award to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who served in the Bush administration.
The anti-Bush petition collected at least 1,000 signatures after it was posted on Change.org. Signers include Kiela Parks, who said she worked on the 2011 and 2012 Korbel dinners as a staffer with the office of alumni and external relations.
“That George W. Bush, who is known to have authorized torture and numerous other crimes against humanity, is being given an award for ‘improving the human condition’ is a sick, cruel joke,” Ms. Parks said in a post on Change.org. “It makes a mockery of this school and the degree I worked so hard to attain.”
The Korbel school was named after the father of former Secretary of State Madeline K. Albright. The dean, former Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, served in the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
Mr. Hill defended the decision to honor Mr. Bush in an email to faculty, calling the ex-president’s anticipated appearance an “honor” and a “tremendous opportunity” for fundraising.
“We live in difficult times in which fundamental institutions such as the presidency are sometimes not respected or when even basic civility seems lacking,” Mr. Hill said. “I hope we can all rise to the occasion for this event involving a former president.”